Rothko and Public Grief

  • Share
  • Read Later

Re: the brief picture-post I did yesterday in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings. Watching the news coverage on Monday, I was struck, as I pretty much expected to be, by how inadequate TV news is to the experience of tragedy. This is no insult to the hardworking people on cable, which is where I was getting most of my information Monday night, even when they were repeating for the twentieth time the same video of distant gunfire. But even news people know that the very format of the news, in which airtime must be filled by constant commentary, is inadequate to any moment when words fail.

So when I started to think yesterday about ways to mark the moment, or even whether to mark it, I thought of Rothko. The work of his mature years was dedicated to finding a way to express the unfathomable, and more than that, to express tragedy in a century that either denied it with all the noisemakers at its disposal — you’ve heard of pop culture? — or contended with it by way of religious consolations that did not speak to him.

I wasn’t always much of a Rothko fan and I’m still not always convinced by him. The first time I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston, in the late 1980s, I was operating under the influence of a remark by the poet Czeslaw Milosz, something to the effect that the Western search for meaning in abstract art was a case of expecting too much from mere pigment. As you probably already know, as guides for the perplexed, the writers of central Europe cannot be beat. History has equipped them with just the right balance of the tragic and the ironic dimension. (For anyone making his or her way through the second Bush presidency, these qualities have a lot to recommend them.) So it was Milosz’s skepticism I brought with me on that first visit to Rothko’s Chapel. I looked at those walls covered with those very austere paintings in dim light and saw one more attempt to offer canvases as secular icons, gateways to the ineffable, an ineffable I didn’t believe in anyway. I went away unpersuaded.

Rothko Chapel — © 2004 Rothko Chapel 

But I made another visit in more recent years with a different notion of what Rothko was up to. By that time I understood that all those hovering fog banks of color weren’t gateways to anything, they were emblems of thwarted longing. Rothko was trying to invoke the power of myth, even the power of God, all the while knowing that he could summon those things, but they might not come. Would not, more likely.

By the same token, Barnett Newman’s steel sculpture Broken Obelisk, a fractured obelisk perched upside down on the tip of a pyramid, seemed just right in its position in a reflecting pool outside the chapel. For Rothko’s doubting sanctuary, Newman’s disabled sentinel.

Broken Obelisk/Barnett Newman — © 2004 Rothko Chapel

So when I got to thinking about what use art could possibly be to what happened at Virginia Tech, I went looking for somebody fluent in the language of wordless suffering, whose work acknowledged grief, but provided no easy answers. And naturally I arrived at Mark Rothko.

One last note. Yesterday I also put up a favorite quote from him. “Silence is so accurate”. But if there’s any chance now of resuming a real conversation over gun control, then let’s decide that the moment of silence is over soon.